Burdett stable has international following
BURDETT--When Erika Eckstrom was five years old and caught the "horse-bug," she used crayons to write out a business plan so impressive, her mother kept it. Her intention was to have a horse farm, go to school and become a veterinarian. But first she took a brief pause for growing up, and advanced degrees in music, anthropology, media and marketing. Working in Washington, D.C. in her early 20s, she suddenly remembered her earlier dreams. "I packed my stilettos and got the idea to move home," she said.
Having grown up in Lansing, New York, she started looking for a place to buy first in Tompkins County, then in Schuyler. Her parents coached her, suggesting a laid-back, dis-interested approach toward prospective sellers, but when they saw the Burdett farm on Route 79 now known as "Painted Bar Stables," her mother fell in love with the place and burst out, "This is it!"
Much renovation was needed on the house and farm buildings--but there was also a lot of potential. When Eckstrom took possession in 2008, she moved her own horses into the barn, and began adding more--boarders, gifts, rescues and purchases. She describes the operation on a tour of the now-extensive stables, which surround a large indoor arena for lessons and indoor exercise. As the tour unfolds, it's clear that though the farm looks quiet from the road, there's a whole other world beyond its rail fences.
Around her, the barn is a hive of activity--apprentices and volunteers take horses out for grooming and exercise. Each worker has his or her own plan for the day, and a set of horses to groom, feed, exercise and clean up after.
Farrier and riding instructor Jen Van Dusen announces "It's farrier Friday!" and systematically examines hooves, trimming, checking shoes, eventually moving her truck-mounted forge near the doorway to hammer out horseshoes to be fitted on Firefly, Eckstrom's personal horse--partly because she's the only person who really likes him.
"He's an arrogant jerk, but he's my arrogant jerk," Eckstrom jokes. "You wouldn't want to go out to dinner with him, but he's good to work with. He's pushy, he knows better than anyone else, but he shows up to work," she says. Others who've watched Eckstrom and Firefly working together have asked for a chance to ride him, like Van Dusen, who got off Firefly and announced, "Once was enough!"
Van Dusen, who teaches all the horsemanship classes, has also been teaching a class on farrier skills (trimming and shoeing horses' hooves) for owners and riders--not so they can become farriers themselves, but to instill an educated understanding of anatomy, particularly the feet, and how to work with a farrier. She and Eckstrom have noticed a surprising effect of this class--"anyone who's been in the farrier class is a better horseman faster," Eckstrom says.
"Because everything is about the horse's feet," Van Dusen explains.
Spock the rescue mule is a particular friend of Van Dusen. His stall is closest to the anvil, and he watches interestedly as red-hot shoes are hammered and shaped to the feet of whatever horse is standing nearest. Originally wary and skittish--Eckstrom still will not let anyone walk near him with a broom, guessing from his reactions he was once beaten--he's become such a dependable, kindly mount, Eckstrom had a t-shirt made in his honor with the words "Live Long and Prosper" printed on it. All t-shirt revenue goes to fund additional rescues. Eckstrom worked with Spock for nearly three years to take him from wary to friendly. "But one day he was suddenly OK," Eckstrom says.
On the coldest night of the winter--only a few days ago--Mystique, an Amish-bred Percheron mare purchased last fall at auction, gave birth to her colt. Intern Matt Prendergast was close by to help if needed, but all went well. After finishing a degree in agricultural science, he wanted an equine immersion program in breeding, training and riding.
"And he bumped up his riding skills ten-fold," Eckstrom notes. "A lot of people have a passion for horses but haven't had opportunities. Money is a limiting factor. What they need is saddle time and horses." Interns, also called apprentices, come to the farm from all over, having found Eckstrom's online listing at the equestrian jobsite yardandgroom.com. The Painted Bar stable has hosted interns and volunteers from Europe, China, South and Central America and across the U.S. When they leave, they've acquired management skills as well as teaching, farm and horse experience. In fact, Eckstrom's fiancé Dan Salisbury first came to the farm for riding and then as a volunteer.
When another apprentice comes for her, Mystique is led to the arena for exercise with the baby at her side. At first, Mystique and her child stand quietly, simply looking around. Then the baby kicks up her heels and they frolic--that's the only word for it--around the rink, stopping to examine equipment at the edges before the baby tries a joyful buck. Eckstrom and three apprentices stand and admire the pair who stop at the other end of the arena and stare back for a moment. A huge chalkboard above their heads functions as a weekly spread-sheet, noting the work hours for each horse. No horse works more than three hours a day. One of Prendergast's jobs is keeping the list current.
"I think I'd like to try her at dressage," muses Kathleen Clifford, one of the local teen apprentices. Eckstrom warns her a lot of work lies ahead. "I know," Clifford says. Eckstrom mentions an upcoming competition, which Clifford says she'll think about.
"A lot of equestrian programs have young people mostly mucking out stalls, or being told what to do," Eckstrom comments. "I try to give them independence and freedom to make their own [work] plan." Clifford was one of two "head girls" last summer, managing the other volunteers. They help with barn work and grooming, and accompany guests on trail rides, which along with horsemanship lessons are the farm's bread and butter.
Eckstrom goes on every trail ride--last year there were 3,000 of them--carefully matching people and horses, as well as the composition of each ride. Prospective trail ride participants fill out an online questionnaire so she can gauge experience and expectations. For example, if the riders are newlyweds or a couple enjoying a romantic weekend, she'll suggest a less crowded day. "I'm obsessed with people getting on the right ride," she says. "And if you haven't learned something, I'm not doing my job." Trail rides are $55 for a one-hour ride, but there's a seasonal/local winter discount of $40 for an hour's ride in cold weather. At this point, the walk through the stable pauses at Gringo's stall. The large, friendly horse Eckstrom describes as "sort of like a black lab" wants to kiss everyone who wanders into his orbit. Gringo's job is to carry larger riders. "And let's face it, people are not getting smaller!"
There's one other major aspect of her business--an ongoing breeding program. Eckstrom keeps a large stallion whose numerous offspring live across the country as well as here. She breeds for size as well as temperament. But because he's getting older, the beautiful yearling Vanzi was purchased in Wisconsin as his eventual replacement. "I wanted a non-local bloodline," she explains, as well as a sweet, docile temperament, which Vanzi exhibits. Stallions may begin their breeding career as young as a year old, but Eckstrom intends to train Vanzi first to be sure he lives up to his current promise. "And if he doesn't work as a breeding stallion, we'll have him snipped and make him into a riding horse," she says.
As for the older horses, they have a retirement program where they're given to adoptive homes where they can be family pets, though they can't be sold or worked. "We re-homed three this year."
If it sounds like Eckstrom has a careful business plan, that should be no surprise--she'd honed it for nearly 20 years before she went into business. "I was 'Young Entrepreneur of the Year' in 2012 or 2013--that was kind of cool," she says. "They wanted to catch me before I turned 30."
Learn more about the farm, book a trail ride and learn about volunteering and internship online at paintedbarstables.com